Q&A: Baking mix brand conquers challenges in gluten-free innovation

by Monica Watrous
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Suzie Miller, Darcy Zbinovec and Lizann Anderson are the women behind Among Friends.

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — Before Suzie Miller and Lizann Anderson founded their baking mix business in 2006, the Michigan moms shared homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with friends and family.

“We started calling them ‘apology cookies’ because if we were late for picking the kids up or if our friends had to take our kids instead of us… it was kind of a joke for a while,” Ms. Miller said.

From there, Among Friends, L.L.C. was born. The company manufactures whole-grain baking mixes that are Non-GMO Project verified and contain no starches, fillers or gums. Currently, Among Friends is in the process of converting all of its products to gluten-free. The company also recently debuted a new variety called Darcy’s Delish, an old-fashioned chocolate chip cookie mix named after the chief executive officer, Darcy Zbinovec.

And starting this summer, Among Friends products will be available nationwide in Target and Kroger stores.

“About a year ago we were in a little over 300 stores,” Ms. Zbinovec said. “So, we’ve had some nice distribution in the last 12 to 15 months. This is really going to make us more national. There were parts of the country where we really weren’t in much, so this is going to be big thing for us.”

In an exclusive interview with Food Business News, the women behind Among Friends shared business insights and a few secrets of gluten-free formulation.

Food Business News: How did you decide to convert the entire line to gluten-free?

Lizann Anderson: In some ways it has been a natural outgrowth of who we are and how we started. We started with a whole grain platform, and initially we really wanted to expose people to the whole world of grains out there that the rest of the world enjoys and in America hasn’t been available until more recently. Our original oatmeal raisin cookie is made with spelt.

Among Friends' original oatmeal raisin cookie is made with spelt.

From a business standpoint, it’s actually very hard to manage both lines because people were getting confused about which of our products were the gluten-free and which were not the gluten-free, so when we considered what it takes to ramp up, we had to put our resources toward one goal.

Darcy Zbinovec: For us, when we looked at our product and we looked at the competitive set from the standpoint of what we could see out there, we felt that our biggest point of difference was really on the gluten-free side. There wasn’t just one decision or one thing that we looked at; we looked at a variety of both external and internal things and thought that was our best opportunity to start making the company into something that was more national.

How did you overcome the flavor and texture challenges associated with gluten-free baked foods?

Ms. Anderson: It’s interesting. Sometimes I feel like I should say to the world, “Hey, there’s a little secret out there. You don’t need to put all those gums and starches in your product for them to taste good.” They actually detract from several kinds of baked goods.

Cookies are easier than muffins, or, let’s say, we have a cake, and there was more experimentation going into the cake, because, sure, it’s not going to behave exactly like a cake made with white flour. It’s really getting the right grain of mixes and flavor.

Maybe it was just my stubborn refusal, but I just couldn’t believe you couldn’t make great products without the gunk. So I just started experimenting and found it was actually easier than people think it is.

But anybody can enjoy our products, and if you don’t tell them what it is, nobody would say “this is gluten-free” or “I’m missing something.” There is no compromise with the products.

Beyond taste and texture issues, many gluten-free products don’t offer much in the way of nutrition. How do you do it?

Ms. Anderson: I just said I’m not going to create something unless we can provide a superior nutritional profile. Why would I make something that’s actually worse for you because it’s a lot of empty carbs? White rice flour is about the highest thing on the glycemic index. So why would I use that and tell my kids that’s what they should eat?

For so long, if you were celiac, you were just desperate for something you could eat. And manufacturers picked up on that and were just trying to replicate what was out there without really considering the nutritional qualities.

Those days are over. When we first applied for the Whole Grain Stamp, there were not very many out there. And that whole space has grown immensely.

You mentioned certain products are more difficult to make gluten-free than others. Does that limit your portfolio?

Ms. Anderson: We will try to keep pushing the boundaries. We actually have lots of possibilities in our arsenal. Part of it is waiting for certain flours to become economical enough to use. Our line is line-priced, so if we did something with all almond flour, that would be difficult to manufacture and make any money.

I’m experimenting right now with bread and pizzas, but I’m giving myself a good year and half to just do that before I consider creating something. It’s challenging; I’m not going to say it’s not challenging, but I feel like where there’s a will, there’s a way.

If you start from the premise that this is what you’re going to use, you get kind of clever about it. There’s psyllium husk and other natural starches, there’s now a natural whole grain sorghum starch we can use.

Each of your baking mixes is named after a friend or family member. Are those products inspired by the individuals for whom they are named?

Ms. Anderson: In some cases, yes. With Shane’s Sweet and Spicy, Shane is my second son, and he is probably the pickiest person in my family and he wanted me to make a ginger cookie like his grandmother’s. I took this recipe that called for shortening and two cups of sugar and started experimenting.

Sometimes the product comes first, and sometimes the naming comes first. But there’s always a connection, and that is a big part of who we are.

How did you decide to turn your homemade cookies into a baking mix business?

 Ms. Miller: Because we just knew immediately that people wanted the ease of making home-baked treats for their loved ones and kids. There is something completely different than opening a bag of cookies you bought at the store, compared to the kids walking in and smelling the yummy cookies in the oven and feeling the heat and warmth and giving them something you actually created.

Ms. Anderson: We innovated from what we knew. We were the target audience. We were trying to hold down part-time jobs and take care of our kids and still get dinner on the table and have it be warm and nutritious. A big part of this brand is we’re inviting people back into the kitchen, but we don’t want to strand them there. We know how long it takes to forage for the right ingredients and the cleanup. So we just wanted to make it simpler.

How do you differentiate your baking mixes from what’s already on the market?

Ms. Anderson: We do use sugar, but we use less of it. We’re not trying to convince anybody that this is kale. It’s a treat.

I don’t want to make it sound like we’re peddling our products as health food, but if you’re going to have a dessert, our theory has always been make those calories additive rather than something that would adversely affect your health. And they’re also very flexible. You can make fruit crisp with coconut oil; all of the cookies can be made vegan. They’re customizable.

Are consumers willing to pay more for this type of product?

Ms. Zbinovec: We want to be a great brand, but not a super-premium brand. We don’t want to create something we ourselves wouldn’t buy. I never wanted to create a $10 mix. I find that almost offensive. We try to keep ours affordable, and that part is not easy in terms of the ingredients. We’re always searching for places we can get these better ingredients. And as scale grows, that’s going to be less of an issue, and I’m finally seeing that, which is really gratifying.

What’s next for the brand?

Ms. Zbinovec: We’re looking at how we can fulfill the consumer’s needs in a greater way. People are doing a lot of different things with baking. There’s other things they look for, so we’re really in the process of exploring all that and making some determinations as to how do we expand, what we expand with. We are working on some things, but we’re always working on a bunch of things. We’ll make a decision over nine months as to what exactly we’re looking at as the next phase of the brand.

Among Friends is considering adding savory baking mixes to its product lineup.

But it will be baking mixes.

Ms. Anderson: Yes. But not necessarily sweet baking mixes. Savory, as well.

Tell me about how products are developed at your company.

Ms. Zbinovec: What we do is basically we have a recipe and formulation that Lizann works on, and internally we usually select a couple of different recipes and send that out to consumers, who do an in-home use test where they actually bake the products.

What we do after that is we’ll make refinements, potentially, and then we’ll center in on a recipe and start the process of getting the packaging. Sometimes some of the things will change in the facility a little bit. From there, we’ll launch it.

How long does that take?

Ms. Zbinovec: It really depends on the product. Lizann has a bunch of recipes already in her repertoire, so we sometimes just take a look at that and potentially modify those recipes. Sometimes it’s a brand new creation. From the time we decide on something to the time it’s launched — we usually launch once a year at Expo West — with packaging and everything, probably six or seven months.

What were you doing before you launched this company?

Ms. Anderson: I was doing some freelance writing and also helping start a teen center in Ann Arbor as a volunteer. I was on the founding board and very involved. I was older when I had my kids, so I was primarily taking care of the home fires.

Ms. Miller: My kids and Lizann’s kids are pretty much the same ages. I had to work, so I was doing the Among Friends business as well as freelancing art and cleaning houses and painting furniture. It was getting to be ridiculous, and finally I told Lizann we either have to do something or I am going to have to get another full-time job.

Did you ever think you would be starting a food company?

Ms. Miller: When I was in the seventh grade, I remember saying I will never work for a person; I will have my own company. I had a company I started in 1990 that didn’t work out so well. Entrepreneurship is in my blood.

Once we came up with this oatmeal chocolate chip cookie recipe, I was holding it in my hand and said “If this gets out there, this is going to be big.” Lizann’s intent was to keep it local, and I’m like, go big or go home. That’s the yin and yang right there.

Ms. Anderson: I’ve always been a nutrition nut. I come from a long line of cooks and bakers, so it’s a pretty natural outgrowth for me, but it’s certainly very different from what I did for 15 years, which was write for a not-for-profit foundation. It was a pretty big departure, but by the time I had my children I was ready to be home for a while.

What are the most popular mixes you sell?

Ms. Anderson: The Suzie Q and CJ (double chocolate cookie mix). We’re of the belief at this point that the Darcy will be extremely popular because it’s the most like the classic Tollhouse cookie with a little bit of butterscotch note that we got from adding a little bit of light molasses.

This is where the experimentation comes in. It’s hard to get that because sugar and fat create that crystallization and make cookies flatten; you really have to be kind of clever about what you add so we’re not just replacing something else out there in the marketplace. That’s really important to me.

I have no interest in being in the food business if we’re not creating something of value for people. I wouldn’t want to be another chip or popcorn brand. I want to be better than everyone else.
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READER COMMENTS (4)

By Ann Welly 5/21/2015 6:43:28 PM
Congratulations Lizann and Susie you both are a credit to healthy eating

By Ann Welly 5/21/2015 6:43:20 PM
Congratulations Lizann and Susie you both are a credit to healthy eating

By Ann Welly 5/21/2015 6:43:14 PM
Congratulations Lizann and Susie you both are a credit to healthy eating

By Ann Welly 5/21/2015 6:42:41 PM
Congratulations Lizann and Susie you both are a credit to healthy eating